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A federal initiative to attract more Indigenous health researchers to the field is up and running in Ontario.

Western University says the Indigenous Mentorship Network Program of Ontario officially launched on Thursday.

Western will serve as the hub for the network, which is made up of 13 of the province’s post-secondary institutions and about 70 researchers, more than half of whom are Indigenous.

The program is one of eight such initiatives being launched across Canada after the Canadian Institutes of Health Research committed to spend $8 million on a nation-wide network last year.

Researchers with the Ontario program say it’s important to encourage Indigenous scholars to enter the field so that scientific research can be informed by real experience of the issues faced in the community.

Chantelle Richmond, associate professor of geography at Western and leader of the Ontario mentorship program, said her own path to academia began after a spill from a tailings pond contaminated the drinking water on Pic River First Nation where she grew up. Her studies now centre on the intersection between Indigenous health and the environment.

Richmond said although the amount of research into Indigenous issues has increased in recent years, they have not translated into concrete change for the population.

“We see disparities and inequalities continue to exist, so something about the way we do this research is not hitting the target,” she said in a telephone interview. “This program matters because … we’re placing Indigenous scholars in a leadership role for a training program that is going to foster a growth for the next generation of Indigenous health scholars.”

The mentorship program offers scholarships, grants and a workshop all meant to encourage Indigenous scholars to further their research or pursue graduate studies, she said.

Last June, the federally funded CIHR announced that eight such mentorship networks would be created across the country.

The $8 million in funding from the CIHR covers teams in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces as well as a national co-ordinating centre. The Ontario program will also be responsible for the northern part of the country, Western said.

The funding follows a recommendation by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that all levels of government increase the number of Indigenous people working in health care.

Participants in the new program echoed that call to action.

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